Rick Westhead, Toronto Star
Jun 14, 2008
Our troops in Afghanistan are being gutted by post-traumatic stress disorder and experts say we’re leagues behind the U.S. in dealing with the crisis
SARNIA—After spending a muggy afternoon last July drinking beer and bickering with his brother during a round of golf, Cpl. Travis Schouten was in a sour mood when he returned to his mother’s well-kept bungalow on a quiet side street.
Belligerent from the moment he walked through the door, the 24-year-old Schouten agreed to take a nap and cool off.
He reappeared a few moments later.
“He ran into the kitchen, darting from window to window and crouching, acting like he was holding a gun, yelling out co-ordinates or something,” says his mother, Ann LeClair.
Schouten was suffering a flashback, another in a series of erratic, sometimes psychotic, behaviours that have included three suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, insomnia and delusions. He spent six months in late 2006 and early 2007 in Kandahar with the Royal Canadian Regiment’s Seven Platoon, Charles Company, a 38-soldier unit that took part in foot patrols in the grape groves and poppy fields west of Kandahar airfield.”Corporal Schouten, stand down!” his stepfather, Drew LeClair, barked. That snapped Schouten out of his state — for a moment.
As the LeClairs explained to him what had happened, Schouten ran out the back door, dropped to his belly, and crawled across the patio into the rose bushes, screaming he was under attack.
LeClair, a former teacher, knew that splashing water on the faces of special-needs students sometimes brought them out of distressed states. So the two hosed down their son.
“At that point, I’m crying and he’s bloody from crawling on the brick and the rose thorns,” LeClair says. “For the next five hours, he lay down on the sofa and I couldn’t put the lights off or leave him alone. Every time he started screaming, I started flicking water on his face.”
Schouten is one of a growing number of soldiers who are returning from Kandahar with hidden scars. The Canadian Forces says one in seven soldiers arrive home suffering from debilitating mental conditions.
They struggle to cope with symptoms such as severe depression, flashbacks, suicidal tendencies, alcoholism, drug use, angry outbursts, and sleep disorders. Some are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which did not formally exist until 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association recognized it as a combat-related illness.
Soldiers have always returned from battle with pent-up rage and haunting nightmares, dismissed in World War I as “low moral fibre,” understood as shell shock during World War II, and personified by the broken Vietnam veteran.
Life hasn’t become easier for Schouten. In November, the military began investigating his suicide attempt and Schouten was asked by an investigator to fax his account of the episode. Four times. He was repeatedly told his file had been misplaced, LeClair says. A Canadian officer involved in the investigation confirms that account.
“It’s shameful, the treatment he received,” says the officer, who does not have clearance to publicly discuss Schouten’s case.
‘Lacking moral fibre’
During the U.S. Civil War, some disturbed soldiers were sent to asylums and were prescribed opium.
From 1914 to 1918, 289 British and 18 Canadian troops were executed for cowardice. They were blindfolded, tied to a post with a piece of white paper pinned over their heart — perhaps to help their executioners take aim — and shot. Mostly privates who were in their 20s, those soldiers today would probably have been diagnosed with PTSD. The lucky ones were sent home to Canada with medical files that read “LMF.”
“I’ve seen charts that read, `Lacking Moral Fibre,’” says Seymour Frydrych, a Toronto doctor who treated war veterans for close to 30 years at Sunnybrook Hospital. It’s unclear how many soldiers received such a diagnosis.
By World War II, some doctors had found a new way to treat soldiers with “shellshock,” says Frydrych, by lobotomizing those who buckled under stress.
Doctors would tap two quick blows to the head to induce sedation, roll back an eyelid and insert a device slightly thinner than a pencil through the upper eye socket into the patient’s head. Doctors would then lightly hammer the device into the frontal lobe of the brain.
A watershed moment in Canada’s treatment of soldiers with stress and trauma wounds came late one night in April 2001.
Canadian General Romeo Dallaire was discovered drunk and passed out on a park bench in Hull, semiconscious from mixing prescription medicine and alcohol. A three-star general in the army, Dallaire had been sent to Rwanda in 1993 on a peacekeeping mission.
Dallaire had asked his supervisors at the United Nations in New York seven times if he could take action to prevent Rwanda’s Hutus from committing genocide against the country’s Tutsi minority.
In response, the U.N. cut his force from 2,600 to 450. He was told only to evacuate foreigners and was left hamstrung as 800,000 Tutsi were murdered in a span of 100 days. Bloated bodies literally log-jammed rivers.
In 2001, Dallaire entered therapy and began to speak publicly about PTSD. His story resonated across the country and helped eliminate the stigma faced by soldiers who are struggling from a mental illness.